“My Walküre turns out terribly beautiful,” Richard Wagner wrote to his friend, the composer Franz Liszt on June 16th, 1852. “I hope to submit to you the whole poem of the tetralogy before the end of the summer. The music will be easily and quickly done, for it is only the execution of something practically ready.”
For neither the first, nor the last, time in Wagner’s life, things did not work out quite as he had planned. By the end of that year he had, indeed, finished the libretto (or “poem” as he called it) to his four-part cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) based on stories from ancient Germanic and Norse myths. But the music for Walküre was not finished until December 1854, and it was another year and a half before he finished the orchestration.
The Ring begins with Das Rheingold, a one-act work Wagner called a “Preliminary Evening.” Die Walküre (“First Day of the Festival Play”) is next, followed by Siegfried, then Götterdämmerung. It all started in 1848 when Wagner wrote eleven pages he published as The Nibelungen Myth as Sketch for a Drama. But it was almost 30 years before the first performance of the completed work was given in a theater Wagner had constructed specifically for that purpose in Bayreuth, Germany. The Ring is monumental in both scope and impact. Most modern performances are spread over a week, and it is not going too far to say many people who attend a cycle feel their lives have been changed forever by the experience.
Wagner wanted the Ring to be given as a whole, rather than broken up, with individual operas given on their own. But soon theaters were presenting the parts of the Ring on their own, and Walküre quickly became the most popular. Before this new production by Robert Lepage opened in April 2011, Walküre had been given at the Met 522 times, considerably ahead of the next most popular part of the Ring, Siegfried (255 times), making it the second most-given of all Wagner’s operas, behind Lohengrin (618 performances.)
There are a number of reasons for Walkure’s enduring popularity. For one thing, after the gods and goddesses, dwarves and giants of Rheingold, Walküre introduces human beings into the story of the Ring. It begins with two very sympathetic people, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the first act is devoted to them falling in love. “The score of the first act of Walküre will soon be ready; it is wonderfully beautiful. I have done nothing like it or approaching it before,” Wagner told Liszt. He was right. The music of Walküre builds significantly on Das Rheingold, where he had used leitmotifs to construct his music. These short segments of melody, rhythm, or harmony could be associated with a character or a dramatic event, even an emotion or an object. In Walküre Wagner used them to help him suspend time itself while the drama takes place, wordlessly, inside the characters. Thanks to Wagner’s brilliant writing for orchestra — something he had to develop even above what he had done in Rheingold—the audience actually experiences for themselves the inner lives of the characters on stage.
Just moments into Act 1 of Walküre, Sieglinde offers Siegmund some water. The stage directions say: “SIEGMUND: (drinks and hands her back the horn. As he signals his thanks with his head, his glance fastens on her features with growing interest.)” To underline these stage directions, Wagner silences the orchestra entirely, except for a single cello. For nine measures this lone cello plays some of the sweetest, most yearning music imaginable, before being joined by the rest of the cellos and two basses for another eight measures. Listeners need not know what labels commentators have attached to the music to experience for themselves the longing in Siegmund’s soul, the love that is even then starting to blossom. The music bypasses our mind and goes directly to our heart or soul where it seduces us into surrendering to Wagner’s world, to his way of telling his story.
The plot of Die Walküre can be told in a few dozen words. The outer events are relatively simple. But the inner journey the characters go through is almost unbearably rich and complex. It’s the difference between flying between New York and California, and driving there. You fly because you want to get to your destination as quickly as possible. But if you drive, the journey itself becomes the point: day after day spent in your car gives you a sense of the vastness of the U.S., of the gradual changes in the landscape, the shifting speech patterns of the people you meet, the way the light seems different. Your view of the United States is changed forever by the experience, it’s become part of you.
In Walküre, Wagner’s music has a new power to compel us to get in the car with him, to let him be our guide to experiencing quest he is undertaking. That’s how he allows us to experience the growing love between Siegmund and Sieglinde for ourselves, to feel the rightness, the naturalness of it. The compelling nature of their love is well established long before they (and we) discover they are brother and sister, so our emotions accept their love, even if our mind — assuming we can wrench it away from Wagner’s music – might have a few questions.
In addition to Siegmund and Sieglinde, in Walküre we meet Brünnhilde, one of the most important characters in the Ring. (Some would claim, with good reasons, she is the central character.) If we listen carefully to the music Wagner gives her, the dramatic arc she has in Walküre alone is staggering, to say nothing about in the rest of the Ring. She enters the story in Act 2, singing one of the most famous (and shortest) numbers in the whole cycle, Brünnhilde’s “Hojotoho!”
Wagner was extraordinarily careful in noting exactly how it should be sung. The first two syllables (“Ho-jo”) are a single phrase, followed by a sixteenth note (“to”) then the last syllable (“ho”) to be held for five beats, followed by a single beat rest. This gives the music a quick, bouncy quality that is emphasized later when he asks the soprano to sing the final “ho” on two notes, separated by a octave, but connected smoothly, ending on high Bs and then high Cs. He also asks her to trill — nonstop — for almost two measures before launching up to a high B and holding it for two measures. If a soprano can sing this incredibly difficult “Hojotoho” as Wagner intended, the audience cannot help being charmed by the impetuous, cheeky, rambunctious teenage girl who is sassing her father, Wotan — to his delight, and ours. Her character, and her relationship with Wotan are firmly established within a couple of minutes.
It is also one of the few genuinely joyful moments in Walküre, an opera rather short on happiness. To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein Wagner lamented (while in the thick of composing), “I find the subject of Die Walküre too painful by far: there’s really not one of the world’s sorrows that the work does not express, and in the most painful form; playing artistic games with that pain is taking its revenge on me: it has made me really ill several times already, so that I have had to stop completely.”
Another reason for the popularity of Walküre is that we are likely to find ourselves mirrored it in. If not in the new love enjoyed by Sieglinde and Siegmund in Act 1, then by the dilemma facing Wotan in Act 2 as he realizes that all of his careful planning is for naught and that, despite his best efforts, his life has taken a terrible turn, leaving him no way out. The scene in which Wotan wrestles with this soul-crisis caused Wagner no end of trouble, and he agonized over whether or not people would grasp what Wotan is going through. “For the development of the great tetralogy, this is the most important scene of all,” he insisted.
Wotan’s anguish continues, with a new focus, in Act 3. Its ending is one of the most extraordinary in all of opera, with the sense of loss, of grief, of abandonment, yet overwhelming love, as Wotan is forced to let go of the most precious thing in the world to him, Brünnhilde. It seems like a bitter defeat for Wotan. His cherished son Siegmund is dead. His favorite child, Brünnhilde, is banished forever. His plans – to create a hero who would be able to win back the Ring and return it to the Rhine maidens and thus save the gods – have crumbled to nothingness. He has nowhere to turn. And yet…
And yet it is because of these apparently failures that Siegfried (in the next opera) can turn out to be the very hero the gods need. This glimmer of hope, in the middle of such overwhelming sorrow, is surely another reason Walküre is such a beloved opera.
Bavaria’s King Ludwig II was not willing to wait until Wagner had completed the entire Ring before experiencing Die Walküre in the theater. Against Wagner’s wishes, it was given for the first time on June 26, 1870 in Munich, nine months after the première there of Das Rheingold. To show his displeasure, Wagner refused to be involved in any way, and he asked his friends not to attend. The famous violinist Joachim was there. So were Brahms and Saint-Saëns. Despite his friendship with Wagner Liszt went and sobbed through part of the opera he was so very moved. Even newspapers usually critical to Wagner pronounced Die Walküre an extraordinary work of art.
The fact that opera houses continue to devote considerable time and resources to presenting Die Walküre in new ways — generally to standing room only audiences — proves that Liszt did not exaggerate when he wrote to Wagner, “Your Walküre (score) has arrived, and I should like to reply to you by your Lohengrin chorus, sung by 1,000 voices, and repeated a thousandfold: ‘A wonder! A wonder!’ ”
A slightly different version of these notes appeared in the Metropolitan Opera Playbill, April 2011.
The art at the top of the page is part of Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s production of Die Walküre for the Salzburg Easter Festival 1967 – 72.